Would removing the bald eagle from endangered species protection, as proposed by some environmental groups and the Bush administration, be considered an environmental victory?
—William Young, Chappaqua, NY
Just 30 years ago, the once-abundant bald eagle—America’s national symbol—was in danger of extinction in its primary habitat across the lower 48 states. Hunting, sprawl and poisoning from the agricultural pesticide DDT had conspired against this majestic raptor, despite safeguards in place under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Fewer than 500 breeding pairs remained and the outlook was grim.
But with the banning of DDT in 1972 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, eagle populations began to rebound. By July 1995, the species had recovered to 5,700 pairs, and was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened” status under the ESA. Today, biologists estimate that more than 7,600 breeding pairs inhabit the lower 48 states, and the Bush administration has proposed de-listing the species once and for all in 2005.
Conservation efforts have indeed made the eagle’s recovery possible, but nonetheless even the environmental community is split on whether or not de-listing the bird is a good idea. Some say that the eagle’s recovery has exceeded expectations and that de-listing would be the culmination and celebration of a great American conservation success story—proof that the ESA works.”The species” numbers have steadily increased over the past three decades, so much so that in some areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay region, there are hundreds more eagles today than there were prior to the DDT era,” says endangered species law expert Michael Bean of Environmental Defense, a non-profit group that was originally instrumental in the banning of DDT. Last spring, Environmental Defense lobbied the White House to put forth the most recent eagle de-listing proposal.
But other eagle advocates worry that key protections would no longer be in effect if de-listing were to take place. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says that earlier efforts by the Clinton White House to de-list the eagle stalled after federal biologists warned that contaminants in the environment and habitat loss were still preventing some eagle populations from achieving optimum reproduction rates. And budget cuts in the interim have meant that no additional eagle population monitoring has taken place. Without any new data to justify de-listing, Suckling and others consider taking endangered species protection away from the eagle at this point to be not only premature but also illegal.
Federal officials have put forth similar proposals to take the gray wolf and the grizzly bear off the threatened list as well. These great conservation success stories underscore how important the ESA has been. But as new, larger threats to wildlife—including habitat loss and global warming—loom, many are left wondering if we’re celebrating victory in the war against species loss a little too soon.
CONTACTS: Environmental Defense, (212) 505-2100, http://www.environmentaldefense.org ; Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 623-5252, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/ ; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, http://endangered.fws.gov/.